NELL GWYNN: RESTORATION BOND GIRL

“They’ve disgraced our trade. Ruined our art. They’ve put a woman on the stage.”

At first glance, James Bond and Restoration Comedy might not seem to be natural bed-fellows. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find both contain a world of brave, brash and bawdy women unafraid to charm and calculate their way to notoriety. The Pussy Galore of the Seventeenth Century was without doubt Nell Gwynn, a woman who helped to challenge the male dominated world of British Theatre and went on to immortality in the names of numerous pubs.

So who better to play this Jewel of the Restoration than Bond Girl Gemma Arterton? One of the finest young talents of her generation, don’t underestimate Arterton’s versatility. She is a fine stage actress with a hugely diverse CV ranging from leading roles in Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Almeida) to Made In Dagenham (Adelphi). Like Nell herself, Arterton is ambitious, witty and fearless.

Jessica Swale’s blissfully entertaining comedy, Nell Gwynn, comes to the Apollo Theatre from 4th February 2016. Nell Gwynn celebrates an unlikely heroine, who went from Front of House orange seller to top comedy Actress, winning the adoration of the public and the heart of the King in the process.

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale: Feat. Gemma Arterton

Although best known now as the mistress of King Charles II, here are five things you may not know about Nell Gwynn:

  1. She was nick-named “Cinder Nelly” and did actually buy a glass carriage!
  2. She had a mouth like a sewer
    Courtiers at the Palace said ‘Anybody may know she has been an orange-wench by her swearing’
  3. Her son was the Duke of St Albans
    Nell made good use of her filthy tongue. She reputedly called “Come here you little bastard” to her son in front of a horrified King. As Nell said, “what should she call him, was not bastard true?” A Dukedom followed very quickly.
  4. Nell’s greatest rival was the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Catholic Louise de Keroualle
    When Nell was insulted by a crowd, she leant out of her carriage and cried “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore”
  5. She almost ended up in the Debtor’s Prison
    Following King Charles’s death in 1685, Nell appealed to King James who settled her immediate debts and provided her a pension of £1500 a year
Nell Gwynn: Used her considerable wit and charms to change British Theatre forever.
Nell Gwynn: Used her considerable wit and charms to change British Theatre forever.

Following a critically acclaimed and sell-out limited season of 11 performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, don’t miss this opportunity to see Nell Gwynn in the West End.

Until 30th Apr 2016
Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

‘A delight, silly and serious… full of crowd pleasers, lilting music and sumptuous costumes… there is even a dog.’

★★★★

The Times

‘Falls between Restoration comedy, My Fair Lady, Carry On films and Blackadder.’

★★★★

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Dagenham Definitely was.

That opening gag sets the tone for this brand new musical, which could have been a finely tuned Ford Capri but coughs, splutters and stalls at something between a Cortina and a hover-mower. Like an old banger, occasionally the jokes backfire.

There are redeeming features – Gemma Arterton is likeable enough as trailblazing seamstress Rita O’Grady, but where she sparkles on the small screen, Arterton struggles to stand out on stage in strong female company.

There are some proper belly laughs, delivered with real theatrical swagger by Sophie Stanton as the deliciously foul-mouthed Beryl, while Naomi Frederick as Lisa Hopkins breathes fire into what could otherwise have been a one dimensional horse-riding housewife. However, it’s Sophie-Louise Dann who provides the real star turn of the night as the formidably feisty Barbara Castle. I daresay if the show has any chance of picking up an Olivier Award then it’s Dann who the producers will have to thank. It’s worth the price of a ticket for the female cast alone.

Dagenham’s men on the other hand are largely one-dimensional, poorly directed and poorly written. Where they should provide a foil for the protagonist and give the women of Dagenham something to rail against, they simply loaf, prance or strut about like they’re in a bad, sexist 1960s sitcom. Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield) is reduced to an effete school caretaker who doesn’t know that the door from his office is actually a cupboard (although I admit George W Bush did think the same thing). Strangely, in Act Two, the striking factory workers enter through it so presumably there’s also a secret passage in there?

Prime Minister Wilson is accompanied at all times by what appears to be the bowler-hatted civil servants from the Embassy Lament in Chess – another musical entirely. And at times I did feel like I was watching other shows. Billy Elliot with cars. Our House with cars. Yes Prime Minister….yes, you guessed it…with cars. Of course there are striking (pardon the pun) similarities with Billy Elliot that you can’t avoid with both shows being set against a background of striking workers. But whereas Billy Elliot has power and guts, Made in Dagenham feels, a little like Ford Motors, that it just rolled off a production line.

David Arnold’s songs are catchy and functional but I doubt anyone will be rushing out to buy the cast recording. Richard Bean’s book is funny but a little soulless. Richard Thomas’s lyrics zip along, but while he can do smutty, with cascading rhymes aplenty, he can’t do moving…and by the time husband Eddie’s song comes along in the second act, he appears to have run out of lyrics entirely.

This being a preview, there are some songs I imagine they’ll cut…so by the time you see the show, maybe Harold Wilson won’t be doing a sand-dance any more. And perhaps the Stetson-clad yee-hawing American Baddie won’t be opening Act Two with lyrics like “We’re all straight and you’re all gay”. Don’t worry. You won’t have missed anything.

So, Made In Dagenham. Worth seeing? Well, yes actually. The set and staging are slick even if it does resemble a great big Airfix kit. There are some very funny gags – though a bit filthy for the kids maybe. It’s mostly entertaining. I suppose I could sum up the show in one of its own lines.

“Dagenham. So good they named it once.”

Made in Dagenham. From 23rd October 2014 to 28th March 2015 at the Adelphi Theatre

Made In Dagenham – In Preview
Theatrepaws review, 22 October 2014